Too Many Files – Genealogy Tips – Slay the Dragon with Organization

I know of no better way to find yourself eyeball deep in information than to get busy collecting lots of stuff about possible ancestors. When I started many years ago, the majority of what you collected was either loose paper or entries in a notebook when you went to the library or on a walkabout at a cemetery. Unless you are fastidious about filing and recording as soon as you get home, you will quickly find you have lots of stuff, sometimes know you have it, but can’t seem to find it. If you haven’t gotten to that stage yet, this would be a good time to create a filing system that works for you and will allow you to find a file when you need it, whether paper or digital. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve spent way too much time looking for something I knew I had but couldn’t locate where I should have put it.  I can be pretty expressive at times like these, though that seldom makes the file appear.

messy deskYour first decision is paper or computer, though it doesn’t have to be, nor should it necessarily be, an either or. I’ve seen some filing system suggestions that I thought were way too complicated and frankly if it gets too complicated I find over time I just don’t do it consistently. That’s when you need to ask yourself, what was the point? If you prefer paper, file by surname and then at least one more separation between generations. Make sure everything is filed regularly and where it should be. If on computer, create a directory for your genealogy and again begin the filing by having a subdirectory for each surname. I then break it down further by my direct lines in that surname (male name – surname/given name). If my direct line is a female any records before she marries is in the maiden name directory under her father’s name and after marriage records are in her husband’s surname directory. If she was married more than once, I revert back to her original maiden name directory and create a subdirectory with that husband’s name.  If she is unmarried and had descendants (yes, this did happen) she stays in the father’s directory with her own subdirectory.  This may sound complicated but I tried several things and this seems to work best for me.  Both my Family Tree Maker software and my OneNote tabs help me navigate. While I use the computer these days as my first line of data collection, I do still print and/or file paper for some items. I am also trying to go through my old files and scan documents I would like to have on my computer and while doing that trying to get my paper records better organized. Paper filing is not one of my favorite parts of genealogy.

Whatever filing system you have should be based on how you think, not how someone else thinks. The point here is to be able to find what you file not to have it disappear forever into a filing cabinet. I have been known to refer to my filing cabinet as “the black hole” so in this case don’t do what I did, do what I suggest from hard experience. Think about it, create something that works, keep it simple, and stick to it.


Regardless of what system you create, you really must back up critical documents regularly. As I sit here writing this, Tropical Storm Gordon is leaving the area and leaving a lot of water behind. Flooding is a continuous issue here on the Gulf Coast. In addition, we have hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, computer crashes and thefts to name just a few threats to your efforts. Don’t lose your hard work because you never got around to creating a backup plan and keeping to it. Your backup system should include 2 levels of back-up, 3 is even better. I use an automatic online service for my critical files.  As soon as I change a file and save it, the system uploads it to my service, my OneNote files are backed up with a separate online system, an external hard drive that automatically backups on an hourly basis, and a once a month separate backup to a separate hard drive that I do manually. At least one of your backups needs to be off-site, away from your house. If you don’t want to use an online service, you can get a safety deposit box at your bank and backup and rotate hard drives into your safety deposit box or give the hard drive to a family member to keep and then rotate it after backing up. It really comes down to how much time do you want to spend backing up your data. If not much, look for systems that will work without you. But back up you must. I did preparedness work in my last two day jobs and I talked to a lot of people who lost all their work and their family photos in a hurricane or flood. These events are painful enough without losing your precious family materials.

While we are on the subject of back-ups you should have what you would need to take with you in an evacuation event handily available to grab and put in the car. That is an advantage to having most of your material on a laptop, with an external hard drive back-up, it can be easy to grab and go. If you have original documents that are truly precious and would be too difficult to grab, consider putting them into a safety deposit box and keep a printed copy in your file. This might include birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, awards, and degrees. Take the time to think through the complete filing system, from beginning to end, and then keep it up. It is really worth the time.

See you next week


3 thoughts on “Too Many Files – Genealogy Tips – Slay the Dragon with Organization

  1. Pingback: Start with What Your Know – Genealogy Tips – Build out the Foundation of Your Tree | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. Pingback: “Family” Research – Genealogy Tips – Ancestors & Their Families | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  3. Pingback: Wrapping Up the Year – Genealogy Tips | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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